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Researching from the inside — does it compromise validity?
A discussion

Author - Pauline Rooney


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2.2. New epistemologies, validity and the changing role of the researcher

In recent decades, changes in philosophical conceptions of reality, knowledge and truth have taken place. New ontological and epistemological models have emerged which fundamentally challenge previous positivist models. These include critical approaches such as constructivism, postmodernism and poststructuralism. Although they have various individual claims and beliefs, they rest on the common epistemological premise that truths or meanings do not exist independently, but are created by the human mind on an individual/personal level. Instead of uncovering an `objective truth', we create truth or meaning through engaging with realities in our world (Crotty 1998). These challenging models fundamentally changed the purpose of research, the researcher's role and concepts of objectivity and validity.

With the emergence of new methodologies and an increase in qualitative research, the purposes of research diversified. Many followed the belief that research should `participate in emancipatory and democratising social transformation, not simply the `neutral' collection, analysis and reportage of data' (Apple quoted in Hammersley 2000: 8) Thus this period saw an increase in genres such as anti-racism (Wright 1993; Neal 1998), feminism (Fine 1994; Riddell 1989), action research (McNiff 1988; Holian 1999) and `queer' research (Gamson 2000; Leck 1994). Other genres such as autoethnography and life history also emerged, whose main purpose was usually to `understand a self or some aspect of a life lived in a cultural context' (Ellis and Bochner 2000, p.742).

Within such a context, the researcher's role changed considerably. One of the most significant changes occurred in the role of the researcher and the notion of objectivity. Many challenged the ideal of objectivity, arguing that it was impossible (Hammersley 2000). According to this view, when carrying out research we inevitably draw from our social, cultural and historical background at all stages of the research process (note 2). Within this framework, achieving validity in the positivist sense is impossible. Thus new interpretations of validity emerged.

Some adopted a neopositivist stance arguing that, although complete objectivity is impossible, it forms an essential framework for the research process. (Hammersley and Gomm 1997). From this point of view, validity should be strived for by conducting research in a rigorous and systematic manner and by minimizing the impact of researchers' biases (Hammersley and Gomm 1997).

Postmodernists rejected traditional notions of validity, arguing that objective truth or reality does not exist (Ellis and Bochner 2000). They argued that because reality is the product of individual consciousness, multiple realities may exist (note 3).

If truth and reality exist only as the product of individual consciousness, what constitutes validity? Accuracy? Truth? Credibility? Understanding? Maxwell (quoted in Cohen et al. 2000: 106) and Mishler (quoted in Cohen et al. 2000: 106) suggest that `understanding' is a more suitable term in qualitative research. Guba et al. (quoted in Cohen et al. 2000: 106) argue for the need to replace positivist notions of validity in qualitative research with the notion of `authenticity'. Denzin and Lincoln (2000: 21) suggest that positivist terms should be replaced by notions of `credibility, transferability, dependability and confirmability'.

Considering the complex issues surrounding notions of validity, researchers -- particularly those working in the area of qualitative research -- face a considerable challenge. If it is acknowledged that their research will always be coloured by their subjectivities, how can they produce `trustworthy' research? The validity dilemma is particularly salient when the researcher is an insider to the research context.

 


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